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Charles Cooley : biography

August 17, 1864 - May 8, 1929

Charles Horton Cooley (August 17, 1864 – May 8, 1929) was an American sociologist and the son of Thomas M. Cooley. He studied and went on to teach economics and sociology at the University of Michigan, and he was a founding member and the eighth president of the American Sociological Association. He is perhaps best known for his concept of the looking glass self, which is the concept that a person's self grows out of society's interpersonal interactions and the perceptions of others.


  • Marshall J. Cohen, Charles Horton Cooley and the Social Self in American Thought, New York: Garland Publishing, Inc. (1982)


Charles Horton Cooley as a young man

Charles Horton Cooley was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan on August 17, 1864, to Mary Elizabeth Horton and Michigan Supreme Court Justice Thomas M. Cooley. He was the fourth of six children.


Cooley grave in front of Cooley family [[obelisk, Forest Hill Cemetery, Ann Arbor]] Cooley graduated from University of Michigan in 1887, and continued with a year's training in mechanical engineering at the same school. In 1888, he returned for a Master's degree in political economics, with a minor in sociology. He began teaching economics and sociology at the University in the fall of 1892. Cooley went on to receive a PhD in 1894. His doctoral thesis was The Theory of Transportation in economics. He began teaching sociology in the academic year of 1894-95.

Family life

Cooley's marriage in 1890 to Elsie Jones, the daughter of a professor of medicine at the University of Michigan, enabled him to concentrate fully on scholarly work and the contemplative life he prized above all. A highly cultivated woman, Mrs. Cooley differed from her husband in that she was outgoing, energetic, and hence capable of ordering their common lives in such a manner that mundane cares were not to weigh very heavily on her husband. The couple had three children, a boy and two girls, and lived quietly and fairly withdrawn in a house close to the campus. The children served Cooley as a kind of domestic laboratory for his study of the genesis and growth of the self. Hence, even when he was not engaged in the observation of his own self but wished to observe others, he did not need to leave the domestic circle.

Contributions to social theory

Cooley's methodology

Cooley is noted for his displeasure at the divisions within the sociological community over methodology. He preferred an empirical, observational approach. While he appreciated the use of statistics, he preferred case studies: often using his own children as the subjects on his observation.Wood, A. E. (1930). Charles Horton Cooley: An Appreciation. The American Journal of Sociology, 35 (5), 707-717.

Theory on transportation and the shift to sociology

Cooley's first major work, The Theory of Transportation (1894), was in economic theory. This book was notable for its conclusion that towns and cities tend to be located at the confluence of transportation routes—the so-called break in transportation. Cooley soon shifted to broader analysis of the interplay of individual and social processes. In Human Nature and the Social Order (1902) he foreshadowed George Herbert Mead's discussion of the symbolic ground of the self by detailing the way in which social responses affect the emergence of normal social participation. Cooley greatly extended this conception of the "looking-glass self" (I am, who I think you think, that I am) in his next book, Social Organization (1909), in which he sketched a comprehensive approach to society and its major processes.

Social organization

The first 60 pages of Social Organization were a sociological antidote to Sigmund Freud. In that much-quoted segment Cooley formulated the crucial role of primary groups (family, play groups, and so on) as the source of one's morals, sentiments, and ideals. But the impact of the primary group is so great that individuals cling to primary ideals in more complex associations and even create new primary groupings within formal organizations. Cooley viewed society as a constant experiment in enlarging social experience and in coordinating variety. He therefore analyzed the operation of such complex social forms as formal institutions and social class systems and the subtle controls of public opinion. class differences reflect different contributions to society, as well as the phenomena of aggrandizement and exploitation.

Living octopus

Living octopus

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